An Unlikely Marriage:
Jewish Argentinean Women and Leftist Politics in Buenos Aires
Days after November 1, 2011, Fidel Castro sent a letter offering his condolences to the Partido Comunista de Argentina (Communist Party of Argentina), mourning the death of its once-leader, Fanny Edelman. When the PC published its monthly newsletter on November 11, the issue included remarks of lament from sources as diverse as the Argentinean Secretariat of Human Rights and the African People’s Solidarity Committee. The entirety of the eight-page circular was devoted to Edelman’s work as the Communist Party’s Director-General and President, and as an ardent activist for Communist and Socialist values, including her service among the founders of the Unión de Mujeres Argentinas (Union of Argentinean Women). Reading the newsletter, one instantly realizes that Edelman was a woman of importance not only among Partido Comunista officials and affiliates, but even to republican government officials and within political spheres with international reach. But what allowed Edelman, a Jew born of Eastern European immigrants, to become such a key figure in Argentinean political history?
Edelman’s fame is largely attributable to her work as a founder and leader of the Union de Mujeres Argentinas (the “UMA”), a Communist Party-backed women’s organization devoted to assisting the anti-Nazi war effort and fighting against national totalitarianism. In particular, the UMA struggled against the abuse of power by conservative Argentinean military dictatorships since its inception. The era from which it emerged was marked by rampant corruption and appalling curtailments of civil rights, including the still-unresolved disappearances of nearly 13,000 political dissidents. Edelman, who was born in Córdoba, Argentina, in 1911 as Fanny Jacovkis, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who arrived in South America after fleeing persecution in their home country. Like many incoming Jews from Eastern Europe, they had been abused at the hateful hand of authoritarian tsarist regimes. Along with thousands of other Eastern European Jews, the Jacovkis family found refuge from persecution and poverty in the New World. Argentina in the early 20th century was a nation whose citizens took pride in their immigrant origins, and purported to be a hospitable environment for newcomers, largely due to its growing industrialization and an increasing need for lower- and middle-class workers. Edelman’s father began working at a telegraph company soon after he arrived. Edelman herself noted in an interview that her parents were “not political” but were nonetheless “free thinkers, anarchists,” qualities with which they would endow their daughter, too.
The Jacovkis family moved when Edelman’s father lost his job, eventually settling in the nation’s hyperactive capital, Buenos Aires. Edelman would later attribute her political awareness and activism to her exposure to new ideas and ways of life in the diverse city. First as a worker in a textile factory and later as a musician and music teacher, she interacted with people who comprised the Argentinean political left: radically progressive thinkers including Communists, Socialists, and anarchists, among whose ranks were counted handfuls of other lower-class workers, artists, and political activists. She later came to marry one of these—Bernard Edelman, a member of the Argentine Socialist Party—and, as said Edelman in the same interview, “it was under his influence that I began to become a militant.” As Edelman worked and lived in Buenos Aires, she could hardly help but be affected by the growing political turmoil that came to a head by 1930, when forces led by fascist General José Felix Uriburu staged a coup that displaced democratically-elected (though admittedly not labor-friendly) President Hipolito Yrigoyn. Uriburu’s leadership ushered in a new era of crackdowns on even peaceful political dissidents and especially on Communist and Socialist sympathizers. Because of the risk of torture or death at the hands of Uriburu’s military police, Fanny and Bernard Edelman fled Argentina in 1937 for Spain, where they worked for the Republican defense during the Spanish Civil War. It was here that they became further enmeshed in the culture of anti-fascist political activism. By the time the Edelmans returned a year later, they were known across the Argentinean political landscape for their work to combat brutal authoritarianism.
Edelman would continue to fight for women’s rights, especially in the face of the many Latin American dictatorships that would rise to power during the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout her later life, Fanny Edelman would work in a variety of roles as a leader on the front of Argentinean activism. She completed terms as the head of the International Women’s Democratic Federation; as a UN representative on Argentina’s behalf, where she would drive the creation of International Women’s Day; as the head of the 1978 UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on the military dictatorship of Argentina in the 1970s; as Secretary-General of the Union de Mujeres Argentinas; and as the President of the Communist Party of Argentina until her death in 2011.
Edelman’s powerful influence, and that of other socially and politically active Jewish Argentinean women like her, was, frankly, unpredictable: during the last century, Latin America was often known for its machismo culture (characterized by a heightened sensitivity to traditional norms and barriers regarding gender) and male-dominated society. What’s more, Jews have always been a minority in the largely Catholic nation. Despite their growing presence in the early 20th century, even today they make up a meager half-percent of the entire Argentinean population. Furthermore, the early- and mid-20th century were certainly not characterized by women’s political influence and involvement. Argentinean women did not receive suffrage until 1947, after pioneers such as Edelman and her colleagues in the UMA and its predecessors succeeded in asserting themselves in favor of a new role for women in democracy.
What accounts for these apparent discrepancies? In other words, what factors contributed to the successful exertion of Communist and Socialist ideals by previously marginalized, lower-class female Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe? Clearly, this was not the predictable demographic for political power in Buenos Aires in the early parts of the 20th century. The rising popularity of Communist and Socialist politics among Jewish women can be attributed to two significant factors: the growing ranks of Jewish women entering the modern industrial workforce; and the alienation of these women by the fascist general Juan Perón, whose conservative regime bound Jewish women to the progressive values that ultimately guided the formation of the UMA.
Though the Communist ethics of antitheism invite curiosity as to their compatibility with the values of the religious Jewish population, scholarship has shown that many Eastern European Jews—those who formed the majority of Jewish immigrants in Argentina—had once tended to align themselves with Bolshevik revolutionary forces as a counter to the severe religious repression and political violence to which they had been subjected under the tsars and other authoritarian regimes prior to their immigration. Even before their arrival in Argentina, then, these Jews had come to terms with their deep sense of anger and antipathy towards tsarist government and its many events of persecution by cultivating fervor for politically disestablishmentarian or otherwise revolutionary causes. In the face of a homogeneous and nationalistic society in Argentina, it seems that Jews would have aligned themselves with the Communist and Socialist movements to protect their lives, making their religious discrepancies a secondary priority in order to better fight against labor discrimination and social stigmatization. The PC, recognizing growing distaste for Perón among its constituents, positioned itself and, later, the UMA as a counter to established conservatism; as Edelman stated, the growth of women’s political movements was a powerful factor for the PC, since it encompassed an entire segment of society whose potential for power and influence had theretofore been ignored. Many Jewish women were only too happy to play this role—especially Edelman herself—because the support of the PC afforded domestic as well as international backing from Communist regimes and parties in Argentina and abroad against the abuses they abided.
The Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe initially arrived in central Argentina, where Jewish expansionist organizations such as the Jewish Colonization Organization provided them with plots of farmland. Steadily, however, Jews began to trickle into Buenos Aires as urbanization and industrial expansion created new, more lucrative jobs. By 1936, the 120,177 Jews living in Argentina’s capital constituted living more than 5 percent of the city’s population—compared to just 289 Jews in 1887. Jewish women, more particularly, also began to participate in the economy as part of a burgeoning female workforce. At the time, women were a source of high-demand, low-skill labor whose resources could be bought at low wages by industrial producers in the capital city, especially in occupations such as sewing, laundering, cigarette making, and other jobs often associated with sweatshop conditions and domestic acumen. Indeed, commensurate with the spike in female employment was the tendency for these women to face unsavory work environments and arguably exploitative conditions. By the close of World War II, nearly one-third of all women earned wages in the workforce, while half of women ages eighteen to twenty-nine worked paying jobs.
As Jewish women became engaged in industrial labor, they also became introduced to public life and the struggles of the working class as they began to carve out an increasing presence in the political sphere. After experiencing low wages, long working hours, and unfair treatment, female Jewish laborers joined unions and became activists for labor rights. For example, the textile industry, in particular, employed many women who became subsequently involved (and in dominant roles, no less) in groups such as the Unión Obrera Textíl (Textile Workers Union) and the Federación Obrera del Vestido (Labor Federation of Clothing), which themselves sympathized with Communist and Socialist ideologies. In time, these women would find a collective gendered voice in the UMA, which advocated more broadly for the rights of the female working class.
The increasingly active role of Jewish women in Communist and Socialist groups was intersected by the rise of a new Argentinean political regime under Juan Perón, which emphasized politically and socially conservative ideals and was seen as oppositional to Communist and Socialist dissidents. Perón’s election and the ideals that he espoused were the catalyst for the formal organization of Argentinean Jewish women for several reasons. In 1946, Perón rose to power as the President of Argentina, supported by labor parties. However, as time went on, his government became increasingly conservative and began to fear the radical tendencies of Communists, Socialists, and other liberal groups. Perón had supported the Axis Powers during World War II, expressing his approval of their militant jingoism and their harsh tactics to suppress movements demanding social change. Opponents of “naziperonismo,” as Perón’s enemies scathingly dubbed his methods of statecraft, criticized the use of imprisonment and violence against activists, in addition to repression of free speech and media.
More concerning for women, however, was increasing subordination of women who worked in “pink collar” jobs such as education. Concern for the subordination of women was key to the Communist and Socialist movements. Lower- and middle-class Jewish women—those who made up the bulwark of female Communist and Socialist movements in Buenos Aires—had much to lose in such a regime. Their political rights were at risk, as the government carried out misogynistic practices. Despite her involvement the very public formation of the Women’s Peronist Party, advertised to give a voice to working-class women, Juan’s wife, Eva Perón, constantly reinforced with rhetorical insistence the gender paradigm of women who served their husbands and their families in the home. In her September 1947 speech marking the passage of the women’s suffrage law, Eva emphasized the importance of women as matriarchs of the family and masters of the home, effectively recommending that women be chained once more to the gendered spheres from which suffrage had purported to liberate them. Perón himself preserved laws that deprived women of legal control over their children and even the rights to their own last names, and which forced women to adopt the addresses of their husbands and to relocate with them wherever they went.
These concerns of Jewish women were compounded by the greatest worry of all: surging state-promoted anti-Semitism in Argentina. Perón and his government, in an attempt to subvert the liberal opposition, promoted negativity toward Jews by linking them in derogatory ways to the powerful positions that some held within labor organizations and other anti-fascist movements. More generally, though, Perón’s government encouraged strong nationalistic feelings and a demographic homogeneity that posed a danger to the stability of religious and ethnic minorities within the Catholic nation. The immigrant Jews—not unfamiliar with the woes of persecution, having just a generation before escaped the pogroms in their native lands—grew fearful. The precariousness of their position was not aided by Perón’s strong opposition to Communism, Socialism, and other forms of populist radicalism, all of which were directly associated (and negatively so, to be sure) with Jewishness. One piece of fascist propaganda at the time claimed that “Communism is an arm of Judaism…[and] since Judaism came before Communism, and the latter was created, executed, and directed by Jews, it is logical to conclude that Communism is a weapon of Judaism devised in order to advance its plan for world domination by means of destroying Christianity.” Even more alarmingly, Perón openly expressed his open admiration for the Nazi regime, along with its various leaders and fascist allies across Europe, and had even sheltered notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina after the war. Fearing the consequences of “naziperonismo,” many Jewish women were urged even further toward opposition groups, motivated by Communism and Socialism, which emphasized inclusive states based upon ideals of egalitarianism and anti-nationalism.
In this sense, however, the Jews had less to fear than they thought—Perón began to treat the Jewish community as a potential voting bloc, encouraging the growth of Jewish-run Peronist parties and their involvement in the national political scene. After the foundation of the Women’s Peronist Party, 29 women were elected to senatorial and deputy positions in the 1951 elections. Despite these numbers and the admittedly increased role of women in the political sphere, however, Peronism’s great failure was its lack of female leadership that could boast responsibilities at all comparable to those discharged by men. The majority of women who were elected to Peron’s government subscribed to the prevailing ideology of women’s subservience to men. Their work to win voting rights for women was channeled through Eva Perón’s Women’s Peronist Party, which itself assented to its own secondary place among government initiatives. While the Peronist system was embraced by a number of lower-class women, Perón’s promises failed to placate the ambitious liberals of the female working-class. In fact, most of the Socialist and Communist members of the Argentinean movement for universal suffrage (Edelman among them, along with famed suffragist Alicia Moreau de Justo) initially refused Perón’s offer to grant women the vote, believing that his and Eva’s avowed support for feminism was a sham, disguising greater plans for mistreatment and inequality. These women, far-sighted and skeptical, would not settle for less than extended rights on their own terms, which they knew could only be won by marching under their own institutional banner. So they organized.
The Unión de Mujeres Argentinas arose as a response to growing fears of Perón’s regime. It was established in 1947 by a group of Argentinean women who comprised their country’s political left at the time, and was backed by the Partido Comunista as a means of mobilizing the uninvolved female Argentine population. Though it was socially and economically diverse, the UMA counted among its members many Jewish Communists and Communist sympathizers including Edelman, who later became the group’s Secretary-General. Edelman herself advocated seriously for the creation of the UMA, insisting that women were necessary to spur a national Socialist movement. Considering the previous tradition of female detachment from politics, the existing conditions of the working-class Jewish female populace of Buenos Aires seem to have had the greatest effect on encouraging those women to participate in the Socialist and Communist movements. The UMA set a precedent for Argentinean women’s political organizations; it was the country’s largest political group ever founded and run by women, and one of the few populated by a disproportionate number of Jews—a rarity in its moment in Argentinean history and a marker of the growing political activism among Jewish women. The UMA’s work was widespread and varied in its scope, though it primarily focused on promoting women’s rights, such as fair working conditions and wage equality for female laborers. The UMA hoped to raise the profile of women workers, who then made up nearly half of the working “proletariat” in Argentina and were largely concentrated in the textile, agricultural, and domestic services industries. Members of the UMA most notably supported the movement toward universal suffrage; comprised a major force of the Argentinean arm of the anti-fascist movement, for which Edelman herself had first fought in Spain; and agitated in favor of issues regarding women’s equality, particularly in work and education. Gaining victories in these areas, the UMA’s mark on the present is broad and unmistakable. It is no surprise that Edelman’s death was one felt, although only subtly, around the world.
History would smile as the spirit and growth that thrived in Buenos Aires during the 1930s and 40s proved fertile for Jewish women in their ascent to positions of influence in Communist, Socialist, and other leftist groups. The rise of Jewish women as political officers in Argentina in the decades since speaks to the incredible effects of the economic, political, and social atmosphere on entrenched ideology. The Jewish women of Buenos Aires, most of whom were the offspring of Eastern European immigrants or were immigrants themselves, impressively managed to affect political change on a system that had formerly regarded their lowly origins with contempt. Interestingly, the political landscape not only of Argentina, but of much of South America as well, has been largely transformed to accommodate the gender parity for which these early liberals travailed. In Argentina, populist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is the first elected female president in the country’s history, while her colleague Michele Bachelet was the first female president of Chile from 2006 to 2010. In their wake, South America and Central America have become models of female participation in executive office, with the highest concentration of female heads of state in any region on earth. The groundwork for such a system was laid by the efforts of Fanny Edelman and her liberal cohorts, who cleared a space for progressive politics and for activist women to reclaim their autonomy from under the persistent shadow of oppression.